Impact of the veterinary environment on behaviour
A visit to the veterinary clinic has the potential to impact a dog's behaviour. We look at why.
In general, most individuals are less anxious and better able to cope if they have:
- choice – although too much choice can sometimes cause emotional conflict which can be overwhelming and distressing
- available, achievable reinforcement.
A visit to the veterinary clinic has the potential to impact all four of the above.
By understanding why and how the veterinary environment can affect a dog’s behaviour, we are able to make positive changes to the environment, for example, providing a separate dog waiting area or clinic members giving out treats.
Journey to the veterinary clinic
A dog’s journey to the veterinary clinic might have involved stressful or exciting activity that has elevated their cortisol levels.
The clinic environment might also be negatively associated with previous visits that were unpleasant and painful. Therefore, the realisation that they are being brought to the clinic might trigger a physiological stress response.
This likely will mean that the dog enters the clinic already in an anxious state, anticipating an unpleasant experience.
Veterinary clinic reception
The veterinary clinic is likely to present emotional and sensory challenges. These can create arousal and affect the way a dog behaves, including the sights, sounds and smells of people and other animals who might be unwell, anxious, aroused and/or excited.
The demands on the dog’s sensory processing ability might be extreme, rendering them sensitised (dog becomes more reactive) to new or sudden changes within the environment, such as another patient arriving or the sound of doors opening and closing or telephones ringing.
The presence of animals such as cats, rabbits and guinea pigs are likely to stimulate arousal, even in dogs well-socialised to these species. Pheromones from other dogs might also be present in the environment, potentially signalling threat or distress.
Veterinary clinic waiting area
Waiting times can often be unavoidably unpredictable, and subsequent situations and experiences within the clinic might additionally and accumulatively intensify a dog’s sympathetic nervous response (see situation stacking).
An owner may also inadvertently place pressure on their dog to lie down or remain quiet, without realising the additional psychological burden this creates. Indeed, the owner may become outwardly upset and/or frustrated should their dog vocalise, be unable to settle, or toilet inside, without understanding that these are all part of the body’s natural physiological stress response.
The owner might also be distressed and worried about their dog’s health. The dog can sense this through subtle or overt changes in their body language and demeanour, which can inadvertently influence a dog’s behaviour.
A dog might also experience unsolicited interaction while waiting, either from other owners, animals or the clinical team, perhaps being directly approached, stared at and/or touched. Though well-intended, such actions could be perceived by the dog as intimidating or threatening behaviours, as well as an invasion of their personal space.
During the consultation, the dog is likely moved into another new area of the clinic and might not be permitted the opportunity to investigate this environment in order to feel safe.
The consulting area, as well as the equipment and vet staff within it, might be associated with previous negative experiences, and being within a smaller space could compound feelings of being restricted.
The dog will also likely be examined by an unfamiliar person without any previous positive reinforcement history and whose approach and interaction might inadvertently mimic threat posturing, for example, approaching and encroaching on their personal space whilst looking directly at them.
Handling, any form of restraint applied or necessary medical intervention, could all result in discomfort and pain.
Some dogs might experience their communication attempts being punished, for example, being told off for growling, or completely ignored. Both responses might result in a dog suppressing such communication and instead escalating to overtly aggressive behaviour in order to actively repel the intervention (see communication).
A dog’s communication might also be missed by a concerned clinician and owner intently focusing on a focal body part and failing to observe the dog’s emotional response to the situation.
The quality of the owner-dog relationship can be paramount to the success of the clinical experience
Should a dog have a strong, well-established history of trust in their owner, who is able to remain calm during the appointment, then they will see a stable source of support and safety.
However, should an owner become visibly distressed, this might upset the dog, who might then benefit from the owner waiting outside.
Each situation will be unique and every individual. Some dogs are also presented by people other than their owners or have multiple owners who behave differently.
Hospitalisation requires a dog to be confined within an unfamiliar kennel without the social support of their owner and security of home surroundings.
They also have no ability to avoid the forced interactions of unfamiliar people, or to understand that these are well-intended and going to be, hopefully, short-lived.
The sights, sounds and smells of staff and other patients moving through and using the space might further act as accumulative stressors, increasing feelings of insecurity and constant perceived threat.
Dogs that are hospitalised for longer periods, such as overnight stays, might also suffer from environmentally-induced insomnia, with negative effects on demeanour and behaviour.
As well as being medicated and assessed when necessary, sensory inputs like overhead lighting, radio noise, staff communicating or moving around, the smell of food being prepared or mechanical noises from syringe drivers and monitoring devices could all impact a dog’s ability to achieve comfortable sleep.
The inability to evade interaction might also create frustration, and some dogs might feel a desire to protect themselves and the kennel they have been placed in, as it feels like their only safe place.
- Mills, D., Braem Dube, M., & Zulch, H. (2013). Stress and Pheromonatherapy in Small Animal Clinical Behaviour. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell
- Hedges, S. (2014). Practical Canine Behaviour: For Veterinary Nurses. CABI: Oxfordshire
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Disclaimer notice: The advice given on this website [in these materials] is intended for your general information only and should not be relied upon as specific advice for any veterinary practice or clinic. Each veterinary practice or clinic will be unique in its physical environment and each dog attending the veterinary practice or clinic will have specific needs and requirements, which the veterinary practice or clinic is solely responsible for. Unless prohibited by law, Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Behaviour Association do not accept liability to any person veterinary practice or clinic relating to the use of this information.